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CHICAGO, March 9 (AFP) - Over-eating and a lack of exercise could overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death among Americans by 2005, according to a study released Tuesday that calls for public health campaigns to warn Americans of the cost of their "super-size" lifestyle.
More Americans will succumb to heart disease, diabetes, or other-obesity related diseases than tobacco-related diseases next year, as the true cost of the country's obesity epidemic becomes apparent and as more and more Americans shun smoking, according to the study.
Researchers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that the number of deaths due to poor diet and lack of exercise jumped by a third between 1990 and 2000, while smoking-related deaths increased by less than 10 percent.
If trends continue on their present track, the death toll from the fast-food, couch-potato lifestyle could pass the 500,000 mark next year, overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death for the first time in more than 40 years.
"It is clear that if the increasing trend of overweight is not reversed over the next few years, poor diet and physical inactivity will likely over take tobacco as the leading preventable cause of mortality," said Ali Mokdad, head of behavioural surveillance for the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 2000, an estimated 400,000 deaths -- 16.6 percent of the nation's 2.4 million total -- were in some way related to a person's diet and exercise habits, according to the CDC analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Most of those were due to obesity, Mokdad said.
Tobacco still held the top spot as the leading preventable cause of death: lung cancer and other tobacco-related diseases accounted for 435,000 deaths or 18.1 percent of the total in 2000.
But researchers expect that figure to level off over the coming years because of the waning popularity of the habit, while the long-term effects of the obesity epidemic seen in the 1990s will take years to play out.
"We need to make prevention part of our health care system," said Mokdad.
Specifically, public health authorities need to tackle the emerging problem aggressively, with the type of campaigns that were so successful in turning Americans off smoking during the 1990s, he said.
More than 60 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, and recent studies show that the numbers of overweight Americans is increasing across the board, with doctors diagnosing overweight children with adult diseases, such as type II or adult-onset diabetes.
The tab for obesity-related medical costs was an estimated 75 billion dollars last year, according to the journal Obesity Research.
The study was based on an analysis of mortality statistics from the year 2000 and research data on modifiable behavioural risk factors dating back to 1990.
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